Monday, March 07, 2005

Hans Bethe (1906-2005)

Hans Bethe, one of the twentieth century's greatest theoretical physicists and most articulate peace activists, died today at the age of 98 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. A key figure in the Manhattan Project, Bethe later worked tirelessly to try to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons. In 1967, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his theoretical work explaining the process that fuels the Sun and other stars.

Born in Strasbourg in 1906, Bethe studied in Frankfurt and Munich as a young man. In 1932, he joined the faculty at the University of Tubingen. When Hitler's government adopted a civil service law banning Jews from teaching and other government jobs, Bethe, whose mother was Jewish, was dismissed. In 1935, Bethe joined many of Central Europe's greatest scientists by leaving Europe for the safer shores of the United States. He joined the faculty of Cornell University where he would teach for six decades.

When theoretical physicists suggested, in 1938, that it might be possible to develop an atomic bomb, Bethe and many other physicists trained in Central Europe worried that the Nazis might be moving forward on such a project owing to Germany's ascendancy in the field of theoretical physics. J. Robert Oppenheimer was asked by the United States Government to establish a project to develop an atomic bomb and, in 1943, Oppie appointed Bethe to be the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos where the Manhattan Project was headquartered. Bethe, like many other scientists, overcame his opposition to war and his objections to the development of nuclear weapons because he feared what might happen if Hitler won the race to develop an atomic bomb.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bethe concluded that nuclear weapons had to be controlled. He spent much of his time after World War II trying to convince policy makers that the arms race had to be stopped.

In 1995, Bethe headed up the Atomic Scientists Appeal, which called upon "all scientists in all countries to case and desist from work creating, developing, improving, and manufacturing further nuclear weapons--and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons."